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Editor's note: The multitude of violence against young people in the U.S. is astounding:

  • failed COVID 19 policies,
  • anti-trans youth legislation,
  • a planet in the throes of climate change,
  • erasure of non-white history in schools,
  • and mounting gun violence, including at the hands of police. 

In the Scalawag tradition of passing the mic to the folks at the heart of a story, we turned to young Southerners to get their stories. This is the first installment in our "Schooled" series, reckoning with the way adults—from politicians to principals—have failed Southern students. Here's what Southern youth ages 9 to 20 have to say about how the adults in their world are failing their generation, and how we can take accountability now. 

These responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

On what adults need to take accountability for:

I want DeSantis to stop saying global warming is fake. I want him to stop saying that you can only be a boy or girl. We need someone other than DeSantis or Trump to run for the next presidential election.
— Landen Sapien, 9, (he/him), Tampa, Florida 


For teachers: Please be considerate to our lives outside of school. School is obviously a priority but I am so tired and burned out from staying up till 2am studying and doing homework and then waking up 3 hours later to catch a two hour bus and redo it.
— Noor Ali, 14, Gwinnett County, Georgia


I wish people understood how afraid we were. We're not face first in our phones and ignoring the world, we look at these devices half the time to hide from the horrifying landscape that has been created for us. Everyone I've talked to, they're all afraid of being attacked every time they're in a public setting. … To the adults in my life, the politicians, listen to us instead of what your political party or religion demands. Listen to the children who say they don't like their bodies and believe them, listen to the children who say they feel love that doesn't fit in your standard box (or maybe don't feel that) and believe them. Listen to the children as they cry they want to die and believe them. Listen to the children as they say they fear being shot down in the street and believe them. Listen to the children as they fear for their future being covered in toxic smog and believe them. WE are the future, WE are your future.
—Dover, a 16-year-old high school student in North Carolina


We need to cut the bullshit of students only contributing their ideas to school events. Schools need to listen, and they also need to crack down on the real issues.  No more ignoring the news in the classroom, no more ignoring the students either. … I just want someone to talk to. Living in the South as a queer person can get exhausting. Living in a house that isn't welcoming as a queer person is exhausting. Everyone in the school assumes I am okay because I come happy and well prepared, but they don't see the switch that turns when I walk through the doors of my house. Students need people actively reaching out, and offering mental health practice. Eliminate the bureaucracy of telling parents when their student reaches out because that hurt me. Stop setting up hoops and jumping through them when we students are burning up in the flames of the world you're leaving us with. 
— An anonymous 17-year-old student from Bowling Green, Kentucky 


Young people need power. Power codified by institutional infrastructure, by an ongoing commitment to having youth make choices on things that will directly impact them, by facilitating true intergenerational partnership. Young people should be helping make decisions, not merely informing them. Make the student representative on your board a voting member, make the student on your advisory committee able to draft budget reforms. Student agency extends beyond highlighting student voice; student agency is shifting power to young people.
— Norah Laughter, 18, Russellville, Kentucky 


Students: Do you have a story to share?

Use this form to tell us about what's going on in your life, what you wish adults would get right, and what resources you need. We'll keep updating this article with some of your responses, and use your concerns to inform our future reporting.

I think we need better counseling/mental health support. We need the time and space to process our emotions and fears when shootings happen. We also need more support outside of school, from parents, coaches, and faith leaders to assure we have people that we love that we can go to.

For politicians: Stop expecting K-12 students to learn how to stuff gunshot wounds or make a tourniquet with a sock so their classmate doesn't bleed out. Do something. Pass legislation. "Thoughts and prayers" without action to prevent tragedy is faith without works. In the words of Bob Dylan, "Come senators, congressman, please heed the call / Don't stand in the doorway, don't block up the hall." Children shouldn't be getting posthumous honors most commonly given to soldiers in battle because you refuse to act. 

Teachers: Thank you. I'm so sorry you also have to deal with this fear. You shouldn't be expected to defend your kids in the case of a shooting. For the teachers who've lost students, I am so sorry. 

Parents: Use your vote. Vote for politicians who believe in gun reform and protecting your children. Vote regularly and be educated on candidates' platforms regarding gun control. Never stop demanding better. For the parents who've lost children in shootings, I'm so sorry. You deserve so much better. 
— Katherine Hudson, 18, college student in New Orleans, Louisiana, by way of Knoxville, Tennessee 


To start, I strongly believe that increased unionization and raising the minimum wage will improve the lives of all young people, and our public school systems are greatly lacking in education about the labor movement. Anything to help young people recognize their power. I do believe education is the most valuable tool we have to do this. That means teaching history as it happened and how it affects us today, be that how Black and Indigenous have been treated since before our country came to being or how our economy has marginalized and exploited the working class and their rights have been stripped over time.
— Isabelle Philip, 20, Athens, Georgia


Before they lecture kids, they need to do better themselves. Set an example. I see the news and I know current events. I am disappointed. We need less guns, more civil rights and equality, and we need to clean up the environment. Also, teach real history no matter how sad and bad it is and make college cheaper. 
— Skylar Villa, 12, Baton Rouge, Louisiana 


We aren't talking about how much harder the future is going to be for us, and adults just don't seem to care. Mental health is basically being ignored by adults who think "kids these days" have it so easy. We won't be able to afford housing, global warming is going to affect us even more than now, and now is already bad. Adults being hypocritical and telling us not to believe everything we see on the internet, and they turn around and do that exact thing. It feels hopeless, like we were born just a little too late and have to deal with the beginning of the end… If you truly care about your children, then stop being ignorant and try to have an open mind. Maybe what you were taught when you were a kid was wrong, and we're only just now learning about it. The internet is a blessing and a curse, have critical thinking skills.
— Bridget Keiser, 16, North Carolina

On what school has been like:

The past two years have been a lot. I don't remember large chunks of the time but I do remember the feelings of confusion, frustration, and exasperation. I have had eye bags for two years straight and I am still afraid for my family and my peers; COVID is as temperamental as ever, but I don't really believe schools are continuing to heed this. Rather, it seems they have forgotten in an effort to speed run the "return to normal."
— Norah, 18


Being young in the U.S. right now means fearing the future. Be it climate change, late-stage capitalism, Christian fascism, gun violence, or our militaristic police state. Then again, it also means having hope for change, learning from our predecessors, and working to make those hopes a reality.
— Isabelle, 20


Throughout the heights of the pandemic, my school failed to provide consistency or safety nets for students. Many slipped through the cracks, not just academically, but socially as well. Some teachers attempted to communicate with students on the issues that coexisted alongside the lockdowns … However they were often encouraged to keep the classrooms a "neutral" space. … As a queer student, I have felt pressured to cut my own thoughts on queer issues short, hoping not to disrupt the "neutral" environment.
— Anonymous, 17


I feel unsafe in school at all times. I had to leave in person school and move to homeschooling because of how unsafe I eventually began to feel. With my county's quick removal of the mask mandate and a great-grandmother with lung disease at home, I was in constant fear of getting the disease and giving it to my grandmother and killing her. If we took Covid-19 out of the picture,I was still constantly afraid of being attacked by a school shooter or being a target of a hate crime. I was constantly afraid of being sexually harassed (or worse, assaulted) by other students around me.
— Dover, a 16-year-old high school student in North Carolina


I was virtual my entire junior year of high school and it was so frustrating. I felt unable to really communicate with my peers and instructors. Virtual makes it a lot harder to just chat casually with peers or instructors. Plus, whenever I had problems with assignments and needed to email my instructors, I would sometimes have to wait days or weeks for a response. Then, I was in person the 2021-22 virtual year. Though we were under a mask mandate for most of the year, it was not well-enforced. Most people wore them under their chin for the year and teachers just didn't want to spend the time fighting the battle to get everyone wear masks over their mouth/nose. And I definitely understand why. It's a hard battle to fight, especially when 25-29 out of 30 students aren't wearing their masks properly. Plus, classes were incredibly over crowded. Most of my classes were 30-35 students.
— Katherine, 18


"It has been hard to make friends when no one wears a mask. It has made me a little afraid due to fire and shooter drills."
— Landen, 9


As a young Muslim student I grew up with my classmates making fun of the henna on my hands or fasting during Ramadan and that made me feel so alone. I think it was simply because they didn't understand it and never knew about it. I don't think we talk about religion enough at school at all. When students are made aware of other students' faith and their traditions, I truly believe bullying and insensitive jokes, as well as misconceptions could be heavily avoided.

Even now as a highschooler, my classmates still don't know what our holiday, Eid, is. If we spend more than two weeks in sixth grade studying five religions at the same time we might be able to stop this from happening to other students especially in white-dominated schools. 

Not to mention, religion is often beneficial to many students regarding support and mental health, and if they aren't given the liberty to decide what their options are then they might not feel so confused. I understand schools want to remain secular but that is not the best idea because knowledge is knowledge no matter how controversial, and students have a right to learn about something so prevalent in society.
— Noor, 14


I graduated in 2021. My last year of schooling felt rushed, like I was expected to know what to do without ever being told what that was. I was left confused and now that I've graduated I feel cut loose; even though I made a 32 on the ACT and want to go to university badly, I received no help. Pandemic schooling has left behind many students, and many of those far less fortunate than I am. My only concern about safety is that in my state of Arkansas, I can drive five minutes and buy an AR-style rifle, a high-capacity drum, and sighting accessories in about fifteen minutes. I can do this at 18.
—Collin, 18, Arkansas


Pandemic schooling has taught me one major thing: everyone struggled. At some point or another, each individual struggled with something. Whether that is focusing, acclimating to Zoom, acclimating to in-person again, prioritizing their mental health, staying healthy, or simply trying to retain information, a struggle happened to everyone. Now we get to add one more: the struggle to understand why our safety is at risk in the school environment when the solution is obvious. 

Schools are so caught up in focusing on failing districts that the safety concerns slipped away. The recent tragedy at Uvalde has reignited the concern of campus safety. School districts across America have been struggling to bring their students back to where they were pre-pandemic, and now they have to also focus on the safety aspect when that should have already been addressed years before this pandemic. Sandy Hook should have been the last. Instead, it was just one of the biggest ones. If it would have been addressed in 2012, then the schools wouldn't have the added stress of this on top of bringing students out of the pandemic hole.
— Mackenzie Pendelton, 18, (she/her), McComb, Mississippi

On police and "school resource officers" in schools:

Yes there is a police officer on the campus and it can scare me because they always have a gun.
— Landen, 9


At my high school, we have one resource officer. He doesn't make me, or anyone I know,  uncomfortable, however we are also high school students. As an elementary schooler, seeing a firearm in the school may have sprouted a bit more fear. While I don't feel uncomfortable, I also wouldn't say I feel more comfortable.
— Anonymous, 17


Our school is an open campus, and we actually have all measures in place for a secure environment. Everything that people have thrown around lately to protect schools, we have. The automatically locked doors that have a camera, doorbell, and keypad. Ring the button and someone will unlock the doors for you after seeing who you are. Keypad is for teachers only. Worked great for 3 months until 50 percent of the doors no longer unlocked from the security room panel. Those resource officers? Yeah… The ones that stay in their cars and drink their coffee? So helpful. In fact, when we had the threat this year of a current student acting out and roaming the halls with a possible weapon, they continued to stay in their cars. They ended up eventually blocking him on the street outside, but only after he came outside himself. Luckily he had no weapon, and was just laced with a psychedelic, but before they even knew this fact we were never placed under lockdown.
— Mackenzie, 18


Having police officers in my school makes me feel extremely unsafe. I don't like that they have guns in a school environment and I would feel better if they had training in how to be in a school.
— A 15-year-old from Lexington, Kentucky 


When I see police on our campus, I'm reminded of the violence police perpetrate on working class people and communities of color, and especially black communities. The presence of weaponry will never make me feel safer in a place I'm meant to learn and grow.
— Isabelle, 20


We, sometime this year, have gotten a new officer. I noticed him, and my peers did too, and the general question we had was "why?" We all know the history of police officers helping in dangerous situations. So, we are still just as cautious as we were before he came to work. Despite him working here for almost a full year, we still don't know how he would react to a high-pressure situation, like an active shooter. We do not know how any of the police officers would react. And their presence does not make me feel any safer. It also does not make me feel any less safe. Them being here would mean one of two things in an active shooter situation. One, they save the day and we come out alive because of them. Or two, they would be unreliable and we would have to save ourselves.
— Pooja Kalwani, 16, Houston, Texas


I've noticed SROs. Last school year, a student in my city was killed by police in his school after the mother of the student's girlfriend called to report a domestic issue. There was also an incident in my city where an SRO dragged around an autistic student. My school's SROs are mostly fine, usually just breaking up fights. I'm grateful to have security on campus, because they locked down the school in less than a minute when they heard loud popping sounds my sophomore year. But it's frustrating that we need security and that an AC going out was thought to be a shooter. We shouldn't need security (but) it's easier to pump more money into SRO programs than change legislation that prevents shootings. I'm grateful that (just) in case, we have that security. But the possibility that my peers and I could be killed in school shouldn't be a thought we have. Plus, I would sometimes get nervous if a kid would steal an SRO's gun and use it to shoot someone.
— Katherine, 18


My parents worked in a very rural school district for the past few years while I attended public school in the neighboring city. The differences between rural and urban perceptions of SROs is huge. Rural students view them in a light similar to a counselor, with many forming relationships of mentorship with their campus SRO. In larger, more diverse regions, however, the SROs begin to feel more like a threat to students, disproportionately those of color. The SRO at my school was viewed in two very contradictory ways; one was overtly positive, one negative. His existence felt political, which made my peers and me uncomfortable.
— Norah, 18


We didn't have police officers on campus every day, but they did come to school sometimes. We had a shooting threat once, and once a student brought a gun to school. After that, we had police on campus for a while. Also, there's been some fights. I guess sometimes it's good to have the police around when people are doing dangerous things, but I wish we didn't need them. 
— Skylar, 12 

On what it's like to be a young person right now:

Technology means that we aren't the young people that you were. Students gain access to an abundance of information at an early age, and the power to alter mindsets is extremely rampant.  Radicalization is prevalent, and it's the radicalization that turns students into targets that's most horrifying. Alt right white supremacist male teenagers are the school shooters. Not the students that were bullied for being gay, or the women in the classroom who are groped, gawked at, and sexualized by both students and teachers. The formula is the same with every act of violence but nobody is doing anything. There has been no introduction of web safety education, real web safety education, at the nationwide level. Students are not taught the proper ways to report behavior,  without putting themselves at risk, and they haven't even been taught how to identify that behavior. These behaviors start at the elementary level. But teachers ignore it, and students fear it.
— Anonymous, 17


You are not building us a safer world to live in as we mature into adulthood. You are doing the exact opposite. These decisions and laws you are enacting do not even have relevance to you most of the time. Your lifespan is already limited. You've lived your life, and now you want to ensure what? That I can't live mine safely because rights to weapons hold more precedence over my life? … Why don't we try and do something about the pressing issue of Earth's lifespan at the rate we are going? Instead of constantly throwing opinions around, why don't we try and act together to ensure safety for all now and decades from now. Stop subjecting yourself to a party affiliation or popularity standpoint and say "This is horrible. This is what needs to happen to prohibit this from continuing. I may not agree, but I understand that vitality is necessary. What can I do to help?"
— Mackenzie, 18


We have social media, but talking to each other is difficult due to not seeing each other for over a year. We try to romanticize life while having to know how to escape if a shooter comes to our school. We scroll to see jokes and ignore the world for a bit but we are always met with a jarring piece of news. The first time I heard anything about Russia declaring war on Ukraine was while scrolling. This is all happening while you feel personally responsible to save the world because no one else is. Not to mention all your opinions and thoughts being swept away because you're young. If the world is made to be handed off to the children, then all we are getting is a ball of flames and a cup of gasoline.
—Pooja, 16


It's hard, scary, and traumatizing. We heard for a year or so "wearing masks traumatizes kids," but what really traumatizes us is constantly hearing about and seeing school shootings. Knowing that we could be the next in the ever growing list of students lost in gun violence is scary and hard to deal with. And school counseling programs aren't really equipped to deal with that fear due to underfunding.
— Katherine, 18


Being a young person right now is possibly one of the hardest things right now: trying to find a job that pays well, trying to find affordable housing, and just trying to buy food without draining your bank account is hard enough. (In addition), all the people in power right now are not listening to us because of our age. Yes we might be young, but if you listen to the generation that is going to live after you, you might realize that we have some good ideas.
—Anthony, 18, Tennessee


Young people, even the ones you deem "naïve" or "below-average," have things to say and have thoughts about education reform. I am tired of students who don't fit the model of palatable student voice being neglected, especially because those students are often marginalized, and their opinions are the ones that should be prioritized. If a student isn't "eloquent" enough under a school system's corrupted lens tinted by white supremacy and class divides, they won't be heard, won't even be considered. They don't need other students to represent them, nor do they need their voices collected and softened by well-meaning adults; they need to have a place within school infrastructure to speak on issues they face.
— Norah, 18


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Rainesford Stauffer

Rainesford Stauffer is a writer, Kentuckian, and author of the book An Ordinary Age. She's written for the New York Times, Teen Vogue, Vox, and The Atlantic, among others.